It has been more than 300 years since that fateful January day in 1692 when
nine-year-old Betty Parris fell ill in the soon-to-be ill-fated town of Salem
Village. The resounding question is still the same: “How did it happen?”
This question has been hotly debated for years. There are scholarly works on
all of the major theories including ergot in the rye, the idea
that certain women were chosen because of their non-conformist ways,
and that the hysteria was the result of serious strife among the residents
as theocratic government began to come under question. And still,
three hundred years later, these same theories are debated. The difference now
is where they are debated.
The Internet affords many luxuries, among them easy access, convenience, and
an extended community in which to share. Researchers, scholars, and hobbyists
alike are privy to a vast array of websites on every conceivable subject. It is,
then, to be expected that the Salem witchcraft hysteria would be addressed on
the Internet. In fact, a search of the AltaVista search engine revealed more than 2,500 web pages dealing
with this subject. A search of Google’s newsgroups revealed more than 8,000 messages on this
topic and approximately 166 on the ergot theory alone.
In seeking out information about Salem’s most remembered event, a researcher
can find everything from a look at the event from a lawyer’s viewpoint to an online
game by National Geographic that allows us to experience the events
from the eyes of an accused witch. The more one wants to know on
this subject, the more will be found, allowing researchers the chance to form
their own opinions about what really happened. While scholars have not created
all of the websites and messages, the interesting dialogues afford researchers
the option to view opinions from a variety of approaches and levels of
Genealogically speaking, it should probably be expected that the ancestry and
descendants of those unfortunate accused witches of Salem would be considered.
The number of researchers who can trace their New England ancestry to an accused
witch is impressive. When you factor in those accused in Andover in the same
year, or other miscellaneous accusations in other New England towns throughout
the years, it is easy to discover not only one but several accused souls among
While genealogists strive to connect the familial relationships, many of
today’s researchers are also looking to embellish these dry facts with
historical accounts of the lives of their ancestors. For those with accused
Salem witch ancestors, the documents were always prolific, though sometimes not
easily located. With the Internet, and the new technology available, many of
those same documents are now accessible.
The University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law has compiled an
interesting website of famous trials including the Rosenberg trial (1951), the
trial of Susan B. Anthony (1873), Sacco-Vanzetti trial (1921), and the Amistad
trials (1839-1840). It goes without saying that such a site would not be
complete without the inclusion of the Salem witchcraft trials of
The University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law website offers a well-written overview of the events of that fateful year. It
addresses the turmoil that Salem Village was undergoing and suggests that
“nothing about this tragedy was inevitable.” Author Douglas Linder
mentions the economy, jealousy, and teenage boredom as contributing factors to
the events. The overview is a good place to begin with this particular site.
Links embedded in the text take the researcher to transcripts of many of the
documents that were created during the hysteria — including arrest warrants,
examinations, trial records, petitions, and death warrants.
This site also includes a transcript of Cotton Mather’s Memorable Providences, Relating
to Witchcrafts and Possessions, written in 1689. This became a best-selling
book for Mather and was found in the library of Rev. Samuel Parris, father of
Betty, the first girl to be afflicted. While the website’s collection of images
concentrates on portraits of key players, as well as artistic renditions of some
of the events, it does include a copy of the arrest warrant of John Proctor and
Sarah Cloyce, the one Towne sister to survive the events. Both Rebecca (Towne)
Nurse and Mary (Towne) Esty would be hanged before common sense again took hold
of Salem Village.
Of particular interest at this site is a link to transcriptions of petitions for compensation. These are dated
1710-1711 and show requests by surviving family members for compensation for the
terrible ordeals they endured. A fictionalized account of the Salem witch trials
and of the compensation hearings can be found on video in Three Sovereigns
for Sarah, which depicts the terrible events of 1692 through the eyes of
Sarah Cloyce, mentioned above, who at the end of the film was given three gold
sovereigns to compensate for her own suffering and the death of two sisters.
Anything that offers insight into the lives of ancestors may hold a clue as
to where records exist. While fictional, Three Sovereigns for Sarah is
one of the more accurate films. Relying on Richard B. Trask, one-time archivist
for Danvers (known as Salem Village until 1752) and historian Stephen
Nissenbaum, a professor at the University of Massachusetts and co-author of
Salem Possessed and Salem-Village Witchcraft, this film gives a
stark reality to the events of 1692. Such a gripping tale leads the curious to
seek additional information.
In the past such information came from books. Those with a keen interest have
amassed many volumes about the events and the people involved. Unfortunately,
access to the now over eight hundred original documents created during the
trials has been difficult.
Modern technology, where the events of the Salem witch trials are concerned,
goes beyond the simple marvel of the Internet. Digitization of documents offers
scholars and interested hobbyists the first opportunity to read and study these
Perhaps the best site to view fully the new technology is “ Witchcraft in
Salem Village.” The University of Virginia’s Electronic Text Center,
Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, Special Collections
Department, and the Geospatial and Statistical Data Center are working with the
Boston Public Library, Danvers Archival Center, the Peabody Essex Museum, the
Massachusetts Archives, and the Massachusetts Historical Society. Through this
collaborative effort, interested parties now have access to transcriptions and
digitized images of many rare documents and books.
As savvy computer users, contemporary genealogical researchers naturally
gravitate to sites with search engines. “Witchcraft in Salem Village’s” section
devoted to “ The Salem Witchcraft Papers ” contains a verbatim transcript of
the legal documents generated during the arrests, trials, and deaths of accused
witches in 1692. These documents are every-word searchable, allowing you to look
for a particular individual and discover every document in which that person is
In addition to supplying the researcher with a select list of accusers, a
list of those accused, and a list of the afflicted girls, this site offers lists
of jurors, Puritan ministers involved, and judges. Perhaps the most interesting
list on this site is the list of defenders.
Benjamin Ray, professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia,
contributed extensively to the Salem Witchcraft Project. In researching his own
familial connection to Salem Village he made a discovery. “I noted that my
family’s names were always listed mainly as defenders, which is something I
hadn’t heard about.” He said in a conversation with National Endowment for the
Humanities chairman William R. Ferris. “You hear about accusers and the accused
and the ministers and judges, but there were a number of villagers who were
trying to save those who were accused by signing petitions, testimonials, on
Few people realize that such lists exist. Yet, there were those who signed
petitions, sometimes at the risk of being accused themselves. In the case of
Rebecca Nurse, there were thirty-six signatures. One of the two petitions signed
in favor of John and Elizabeth Proctor contained thirty-two signatures of former
neighbors of the Proctors who in 1692 were then living in Ipswich.
One of the most ambitious sections of the University of Virginia’s site is
the “ Witchcraft Archives.” This section of the site includes
digitized documents from many of the collaborating institutions: 542 documents
from the Peabody Essex Museum (taken from the Essex County Court Archives and
the Essex Institute Collection), 152 from the Massachusetts Archives, 53 from
the Massachusetts Historical Society, and 45 from the Department of Rare Books
and Manuscripts of the Boston Public Library, among others.
While the focus for genealogists is still the family tree, sites devoted to
history offer a method of expanding what many see as the dry facts of the
ancestor’s life. For those looking for published lineages, these are also
available in abundance, though they are not discussed in this article. Many of
these compiled sites should be used with caution. Often they do not cite
sources, nor have they done any original research, content instead simply to
republish misinformation online. Compiled genealogies of persons involved in the
Salem witchcraft trials can be found at such sites as
Searching in engines such as AltaVista and Google for the specific individual will also reveal published
pages that may include genealogy. Once located, such information should always
be verified through original documents or well-respected, secondary sources.
While the cause of the hysteria that swept through Salem Village in 1692 is
still debated, it is clear that the Internet is offering new ways for those
interested in the subject not only to read and study the events, but also to
view documents and rare books until now available only by visiting repositories
sometimes far away. For many, such websites will be the first opportunity to
view original documents, no longer having to guess if available transcriptions
1 Linda R. Caporael, “Ergotism: The Satan Loosed in Salem?”
Science 192 (April 2, 1976): 21-26.
2 Carol F. Karlsen. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman,
Witchcraft in Colonial New England (New York: W. W. Norton & Company,
3 Enders A. Robinson. Salem Witchcraft and Hawthorne’s House of
the Seven Gables (Bowie, Maryland: Heritage Books, 1992).
4 Salem Witchcraft Hysteria, National Geographic, online
5 Famous American Trials: Salem Witchcraft Trials 1692, University of
Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, online.
6 Douglas Linder, “An Account of Events in Salem,” The Salem Witchcraft Trials 1692,
University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, online.
7 “An Internet WITCH-HUNT, Digitizing Salem Village, A Conversation with
Benjamin Ray,” originally printed in the September/October 2000 issue of
Humanities: The Magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities,
Rhonda R. McClure is the author of The Genealogist’s Computer
Companion and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Online